Culture, Religion and Language in Middle Eastern Universities

By Landau, Jacob M. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Culture, Religion and Language in Middle Eastern Universities


Landau, Jacob M., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


While the foundation and development of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem are unique in the cultural history of the Jewish People in Eretz-Israel, they exhibit striking similarities with regard to the development of other institutions of higher education in Turkey and several Arab countries. These universities were not religious institutions transformed into secular ones. Rather, the new secular universities were one of the signs of change of large parts of the Ottoman Empire and its successor states in the years immediately following the First World War.

These secular universities - Jewish, Arab, or Turkish - were vehicles of modernization in large parts of the Middle East, with national habits and traditions. Frequently, these Middle-Eastern universities were foci of nationalist activity, with teachers and students providing both leaders and supporters of patriotic movements. This was expressed most clearly in their emphasis on the cultural heritage - of which the most decisive characteristic may well have been an ardent commitment to the respective national language.

By contrast, religion and tradition in the region prior to the war led to the founding in 1863 of the Protestant Syrian College, while the College St. Joseph was established some twelve years later as the Catholic response to the Protestants. In time, these universities became full-grown secular institutions of higher learning and research, even though a religious element continued to be present in varying dosages. Neither at any time turned against religion, which maintained its position in the curriculum and in the pervading cultural ambiance. This is true, also, of official institutions of higher education in the late Ottoman Empire. In such university-like high schools as the Mulkiye, set up in Istanbul in 1859 to prepare civil servants, the School of Medicine and the School of Law, founded there in 1901 and 1912, respectively, religious instruction was also provided. The same held true of the first Ottoman university, Istanbul University, which was established in 1900. Although the curriculum was modern and followed West European models, there seems to have been little, if any, movement away from the traditional Islamic outlook. Much of this applies, also, to the Egyptian University, which was set up in Cairo as a private institution in 1908, and became a state university only in 1925.

While in religious institutions religious-secular tensions were non-existent, for practically all the teachers and students were observant, in secular institutions such tensions were minimal - a situation radically different from the present one. This situation was characteristic of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as well, during its establishment in 1925 and in the years immediately following. Of course, it was no coincidence that the first academic division set up at the University was the Institute of Judaic Studies. The focus on such traditional branches of study as the Bible, the Talmud, Jewish history, Hebrew literature and language, and similar subjects was not fortuitous. The approach differed from that of the yeshivot, however, where these fields were studied in traditional ways. At the Hebrew University, all these were approached in light of recent scholarly research - linguistic, historical, geographic, and literary. As in other universities in the Ottoman and post-Ottoman Middle East, many of the professors in the Hebrew University's Institute of Judaic Studies were observant. Nonetheless, they all also practiced the critical evaluation of their texts, including the Bible. In this, they differed from most Arab universities, which to the present have been reluctant to approach the study and teaching of the Koran critically. Still, the emphasis on Judaic studies at the Hebrew University, during its formative years, resembled the attitude prevalent in Turkish and Arab universities, during their early years, in their special favoring of the study of the cultural legacy of their respective civilizations. …

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